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Between Bones and the Harvest

If you spend your weekend considering bones and harvests, there is really only one logical place your thoughts can end and that’s with Death. Death with a capital D, like the Death in the Discworld novels, the personification of death rather than the occasion itself.

Death in the Discworld is male, as are most stories of the personification of death in the German and English tradition as well as the angels of death in Abrahamic religions. Death however, is often considered female in the more southern countries of Europe as well as the Slavic tradition where Baba Yaga, also the goddess of the harvest, reigns supreme. There is Madame la Mort in France, Doña Sebastiana in Mexico, who represents Death on the Day of the Dead. There are also Goddesses of Death, Persephone for half the year at least, Hecate, Norse Hel, at least 5 Egyptian ones, The Morrigan, Santa Muerte, Aztec Mictēcacihuātl and Giltinē in Baltic mythology.

There are some fascinating theories as to why the personification of death takes on certain genders. Some edge towards the power differential in communities, others consider that the way people usually die within that community reflects on the gender that death personifies, with warlike tribes having male deaths and agricultural ones where starvation and disease are more common, having female death personifications. I really want to spend more time with these theories before I end up trampling over them with my lack of knowledge.

Godmother Death

I’m on safer ground with folklore and folktales, so I’ll just share the story of Godmother Death instead. This tale begins, as do so many, in the house of a very poor family where a son is being born. The father takes the son out into the road, desperate to find someone to be godparent to him but no-one will because he is too poor and they do not want the connection. So he decided to ask the next person he met and if they refused he would ask the priest what to do. The next person that came along was Death in a black gown, but the poor man did not recognise her as such. She however, accepted the responsibility and took the tiny child to the church in her arms where he was christened.

She then took the man and his son back to her home, where she showed him the candles of everyone on earth, all different sizes and brightnesses. She said that she couldn’t have the father of her godson being a poor man so she would train him to be a physician. He protested that he was not a man of learning but she said that she would give him the knowledge of medicine and that everyone would accept him because she would make his reputation. She told him, for the next months ahead, she would call on him when she was on the way to a potential deathbed. He would follow and when he approached the bed if she was standing at the foot of it, he could approach the sick person with his medicines and ointments and he would be able to effect a cure. If, however, he reached the bed and she was at the head of it then he must confess that there was nothing he could do.

They then returned to his home where Godmother Death checked on the health of the mother and brought her a present.
Things proceeded in such a fashion and as the poor man was able effect a cure at the deathbed of several noble and wealthy man he swiftly gained a large fortune and an even greater reputation and he saw Godmother Death less and less. Eventually, however when her godson was on the cusp of manhood, Godmother Death met with his father over the bed of a king. She was at the head of the bed.

The great physician ignored her as his arrogance had grown with his fortune and he asked the servants to turn the bed around and then began to dispense his medicines and ointments. The King started to recover and the physician was rewarded handsomely but as he left the castle Godmother Death appeared. She informed him that she would be forced to take his life, as he had saved one that shouldn’t be saved by a knave’s trick. She reached out and touched his heart, and he collapsed to the ground.

When Death’s godson found out what had happened he was very concerned, particularly because his father had refused to teach him his profession or allow him to go elsewhere to be apprenticed so he felt that the fortune his father had made would just dwindle away to nothing. Godmother Death appeared to him, and explained their relationship. However, she refused to teach him in the ways of his father as she never wanted to be in a position to take his life any earlier than she had to, as his Godmother.

She instead taught him all the secrets of the plants and the herbs in healing and apprenticed him to a famous physician. As his apprenticeship continued, the great physician learned of his incredible herbal knowledge and eventually took him on as his equal. He believed that with the boy’s herbal healing knowledge and his ability to diagnose correctly, they were the perfect team. Death’s godson flourished and lived a life full of good fortune. He didn’t see his Godmother again until he fell asleep aged 96 and woke up to find her at the head of his bed.

Featured image: La mort du fossoyeur (Death of the gravedigger) by Carlos Schwabe

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